Books · Jottings · Witterings

Author Interview – Maggie Joel

I hope you have had the chance to have a look at my last post on the book The Second-Last Woman in England by Maggie Joel. 

Maggie Joel, kindly answered some questions that I had regarding the book and her writing life. Thank you Maggie for taking the time to answer them. 

Describe your writing day? 

Ha! I wish I had one. At the moment working full-time leaves me little energy for much else. For a decade or more I worked during the week on my day job and wrote all weekend, up to sixteen hours, weekend after weekend, year after year. Relationships, friends, fell by the wayside. Both my novels, plus three others unpublished, got written in this way. But then, two years or more ago, I hit a wall. I simply could not do it any longer. I was no longer willing to give up every weekend to writing.  And, oddly, that was just about the time that I began to achieve some publishing success.

At this stage in my writing career it is probably the point that I should consider switching to part-time work in my day job but the publishing industry seems so uncertain now, such a very different place to when I began writing in the early nineties, that I find I am too afraid to commit myself. And so the writing suffers. I haven’t yet found a solution.

Why did you not fictionalise the story of the woman who was the real second-last woman in England to be hanged?

I write fiction. I make stuff up. I don’t fictionalise true stories – that doesn’t interest me. The woman in The Second-Last Woman in England is, therefore, entirely fictional and the story is not inspired by any real person or events. During my research I read about two very separate instances of women being convicted of murder and then hanged in Britain in the mid-1950s, and the idea of this – of the state exacting such a punishment – really struck me. It seemed so barbaric, so archaic. Many people in Britain are aware of the Ruth Ellis case who, in 1955, was the last woman to be hanged for murder. It’s a famous case – they made at least two movies about it – not simply because she was the last, but because she was a glamorous young woman who lived, what appeared to be, an exciting and enviable lifestyle. The idea that the state could put her death shocked a lot of people at the time – and probably went some way towards ending capital punishment for women in the UK. I had no interest at all in re-writing Ruth Ellis’ story, or the stories of the other two, earlier, cases I had come across, but it did start me thinking. And what I thought was, well how shocking would it be if our murderer was a very respectable, very well-to-do society wife and mother? And there was my opening scene.

The Fifties is rarely a decade that gets covered in a lot of fiction – it is normally the war years and then the mid to late sixties. Why the Fifties? 

When I was growing up in 1970s England there was a great deal of Fifties nostalgia but that nostalgia, for some reason, was focussed purely on the late Fifties. It’s as though there was no recognition of popular culture existing prior to 1955. Those years, 1950 to 1954 were a cultural and historic blank for me. I think I wanted to know what happened. How did those people get from the end of the war to rock n roll in ten years? What came in between?

The story is very firmly set in the post-War but pre-Rock ‘n Roll period – the Austerity years, we now think of it, a time when a well-to-do British family’s existence – both outside and inside the house – was ruled by a strict set of conventions. The novel looks at the depth of emotions that are always present but rarely surface. And what happens when they do surface. And the Coronation provided the perfect backdrop.

History as lived by ordinary people – that is, the lives and stories of average people – to me that is far most interesting that the lives of the rich and famous, or the study of big military or political issues. I think this is because we can all relate to those domestic, family stories. All families have those stories. Often they are at the micro level and may impact on only one or two people but sometimes those stories blow up and destroy lives. That is, really, the essence of this story.

Could you see a sequel – I would like to know what happens after I have read the final page and put the book down.

Definitely no sequel. Those characters have reached their natural conclusion in my head. I have certainly speculated about what would have become of then, from I know of their circumstances and their personalities. And I know that, in the long-term, some would have fared better than others. I can see it quite clearly, in fact. But I have no interest in revisiting those characters in a later novel. It would feel like a cop out, in some way: not being bothered to invent new characters and to explore different situations.

What research did you do?

I embarked on a vast amount of reading: social history from immediate post-War period to the mid-1950s, along with archive copies of The Times and court reports from the Old Bailey all formed the backbone of my research. And talking to my own family: my mother and my aunt had first-hand – and very detailed knowledge – of this period.

The challenge for me was to capture the flavour of that era through the lives and actions of this single household, whilst presenting, in a convincing way, characters and a set of circumstances that lead those characters, ultimately, to disaster. Much of what triggers this disaster has been set in train long before the novel opens in the summer of 1952 so these events from the past needed to be appropriately woven into the narrative.

Can you tell us anything about your next book?

I’m about a third of a way into the first draft of a novel set in late Victorian England…I thought the early Fifties was alien – but this is a whole other universe! And there’s so much to research (I didn’t even know that Victorians drank coffee before I stared this book) that it will be a long time before it’s finished. So it’s just as well you have The Second-last Woman to read in the meantime.

What are your favourite reads? Any recommendations? 

I’ve been greatly influenced by novels such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Isobel Colegate’s The Shooting Party and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, all books which look back – both fondly and critically – on the recent past, and where nostalgia for a bygone era plays a major role. They are all incredibly evocative works, utilising research and literary devices to generate an emotional response within the reader and that is something I strive for in my own work.

The book I return to time and time again is Graham Green’s The End of the Affair. It’s such a simple book, almost a novella, and such a deceptively simple story: a man falls for his neighbour’s wife, they conduct a torrid affair, the affair ends, and yet contained within it, it seems to me, is the very essence of the human condition, of love. And, of course the writing is sublime. Green’s narrator relates his story in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. He is looking back over an affair that has lasted, really a very short time, and yet it has changed his life. I think part of the attraction for me with this story is how he places his characters in their setting: the affair is conducted against the back drop of the last year of the war and Green’s creation of that period is effortless, almost off-hand, yet it is all the more powerful for it.

What novels have you really tried to read but just cannot get into and therefore remain sadly unread? 

Solzhenitsyn’s 1914 was something of a watershed for me. It was the first book I gave up on.  Its sheer bulk defeated me. It must have been twenty years ago but I still remember quite clearly that sense of disappointment with myself. But it has liberated me. Now I start and discard books the way most people start a newspaper article on an online newspaper. I think nothing of tossing it aside if it has nothing to offer me. Life is too short to read bad fiction. And there are enough really good books around to fill several lifetimes. I’ve just finished Kate Atkinson’s new one, Life After Life, and it was truly inspiring. Then I saw her speaking a couple of weeks back at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I was inspired all over again. She is literary god to me. But 1914…I just couldn’t do it!

How do you cope with ‘bad’ reviews – do you think you can take anything from them? Or do you not read them?

I don’t cope with them. I got one about three years ago, a really stinging, personal attack, and I – naively! – thought at the time that it had had no impact on me. I realise now – three years later – that I have been fighting writers’ block ever since and a huge part of it dates from that one bad review. What have I learnt from it? Don’t publish then you don’t get bad reviews! Obviously that is somewhat self-defeating….At the very least, don’t read any reviews at all, just ignore the whole thing. It’s not worth the risk. Not when you know that your entire writing process can so easily be derailed by what you might inadvertently read.


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